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Frozen in the closet: why don't those fabulous Olympic figure skaters come out? An out ex-skater and judge gives us the inside scoop.

After a four-year wait, gay sports fans are once again looking forward to one of our favorite dramas on television: the figure skating competitions at the Olympic Winter Games. Starting February 10 our gay TiVos will be purring at peak capacity to capture the muscled moves of every beaded, bedazzled, and bladed skater telecast from Turin.

I've often thought it would be fun to play one of those drinking games with friends where each person takes a shot of Absolut every time someone believes a gay man has taken to the ice, but then I realize we would all soon be too drunk to appreciate the great performances. Figure skating drunk indeed, much like many of the actual paneled judges, who will no doubt screw up the judging once again.

As a former skating judge--and out figure skater--I've seen the flaws in the judging system up close: In my book On Edge I explain how easily judges' personal preconceptions and prejudices can deprive a skater of a fair score. They also make it very hard for gay skaters to come out.

Just what is the state of figure skating's closet? Unfortunately, it's still closed tight. Not one single Olympic-eligible athlete is out to the public. In fact, there has never been an openly gay figure skating Olympic champion (though one or two closeted ones come to mind).

To this day, the only figure skating athlete to come out while still Olympic-eligible was Rudy Galindo, and he did so nearly a decade ago. Rudy seemed to open so many doors for gay figure skaters. So why has no other Olympic-eligible athlete come out? The answer is a bit complex. Being openly gay, even in figure skating, requires one to march to a different beat.

Think of the stages of coming out. Initially a skater comes out to himself; next, to his friends. In the third stage the skater comes out to his family. The fourth stage is finally being out at the rink--at least to his coaches and the other skaters. The fifth stage is coming out to the figure skating judges and the officials in their federations. The sixth and final stage is coming out to the press and therefore to the public at large.

You'd think stage 6 would be the hardest, and at one time it probably was. Back in the '70s and '80s closeted figure skaters worried that their professional careers might be hindered if the fans knew they were gay. Few, if any, ever reached stage 6, even after leaving the competitive ranks.

Today, whether or not the public still cares about a skater's sexuality seems beside the point. Gay skaters can't reach stage 6 because stage 5--coming out to the judges and federations--remains a major concern. The skating judges and the officials of the national federations are now and have always been homophobic. Because the judges control the scores, and the officials control the competitive (and now moneymaking) assignments, skaters remain reluctant to come out fully in the figure skating world. And that prevents them from coming out to the public at large.

Canadian Brian Orser, a 1984 Olympic medalist who is gay, once described in a court affidavit his worry that it would be "highly likely that if ... allegations [that I am gay| were made public, I would not be invited to return to a number of major ice shows." This was his thinking during the '80s. By 1998 his attitude had changed. In the same affidavit he wrote, "In hindsight, I may have overreacted in trying to protect my privacy."

Before Rudy Galindo won the national title in 1996, he had once skated pairs with Kristi Yamaguchi but was very much kept in the closet. "I was always being told that my costume was too risque, that I was too flamboyant, and that I should 'butch it up,' get more muscles," Rudy recalls. "Pair skating is about traditional male and female roles, so I complied. But skating 'butch' was bugging the crap out of me."

A return to singles skating is just what Rudy needed to find his place in the sport. He decided to simply be himself: a gay figure skater. It is that honesty with himself and with his fans that he credits for his success on the professional circuit: "That I'm openly gay is why so many people buy tickets" [te the Champions on Ice tour, in which Rudy stars].

Skaters in the Olympic-eligible ranks have seen Rudy's brave example, and it has led many of them to come out too, at least to family, friends, and the ice rink. But making that next step is the most difficult.

"Skating is a performance sport," an openly gay coach tells me. "Skaters are on display. The anxieties faced by gay men in coming out publicly are magnified in these situations."

Even so, the number of skaters coming out to their fellow skaters and coaches has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. Taking the next stew-coming out to those tired old judges and officials, or for that matter to the press and the public--is a barrier yet to be broken.

It's the control wielded by the skating judges and the omnipotent skating federations--a very starchy, conservative group of fur-wrapped and diamond-draped individuals--that keeps many gay skaters in the closet.

One young openly gay judge interviewed for this article explains, "Skaters typically choose classical, conservative programs that they believe will appeal to the conservative sensibilities of most figure skating judges. For that same reason they choose to keep their sexuality hidden." As for the skate federations, he goes on to say that "U.S. Figure Skating has a history of stodgy, conservative presidents. No young person, regardless of their sexuality, can relate to any of them."

It is perhaps a generational divide that causes skaters to fear retribution for revealing that they are gay, conceivably in the form of a lower marking or lackluster international assignments.

One very high-ranking gay skater puts it this way: "The judges are from a generation that remembers segregation and thought it was OK. They tend to come from more conservative, wealthy backgrounds. Of course their judgments are more homophobic than [those of] normal society."

Despite his own resistance to opening up about his sexuality to the judges and press, this particular skater still identifies himself as out. "I'm out to all the people in my life that need to know," he says. "Others are just guessing, and that's OK too."

The key question for most skaters, according to another international-level skater, is whether they "will be judged fairly. Are there going to be repercussions?" The fear of the federation is equally great: "Over and over we have been told that the marketability of the sport is hurt if the public thinks figure skaters are gay. No one skater is going to take the risk of being 'the one' that jeopardizes that." With skating contracts worth millions of dollars each year, the risk is greater than one might think.

Gay or straight, who are the hottest skaters to watch for and cheer on this February? From the United States, keep your eye on Michael Weiss (former national champion and world bronze medalist), Johnny Weir (two-time reigning national champion), Timothy Goebel (former national champion and 2002 Olympic bronze medalist), and Evan Lysacek (reigning world bronze medalist). Sadly, only three of these men will qualify for the Olympic Games.

In Canada, watch for Jeffrey Buttle (reigning world silver medalist) and Emanuel Sandhu (three-time Canadian national champion). Russian Evgeny Plushenko (former world champion and 2002 Olympic silver medalist) is considered the favorite. The reigning world champion, Stephane Lambiel, is from Switzerland.

Of these eight men, two are confirmed straight guys: Weiss is married to his choreographer, Lisa, and Plushenko recently married a woman as well. As for the other competitors, their sexuality is not publicly confirmed either way--though a few will likely find themselves edging through the various stages of figure skating's coming-out puzzle. Let's watch and let them know we'll be there to support them when they do. In the meantime, have a shot of Absolut on me, and cheers to all our gay Olympic athletes!

Jackson is author of On Edge: Backroom Dealing, Cocktail Scheming, Triple Axels, and How Top Skaters Get Screwed (Thunder's Mouth Press).
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Title Annotation:SPORTS COMMENTARY
Author:Jackson, Jon
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Feb 14, 2006
Words:1592
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